Parliament held a 30-minute debate about housing targets and the planning system moved by Gordon Henderson, MP for Sittingbourne & Sheppey. It will come as no surprise to find that Henderson’s argument was in support of more housing and better planning but rather the opposite:
This is not the first time I have raised the subject of overdevelopment in my constituency. In the last 12 years, I have done so on a number of occasions, so I will not repeat what I have said before, except to emphasise the problems that excessive housebuilding has caused my constituents.Henderson goes on to set out the complete set of NIMBY objections to new housing, you know those familiar lines about how people can’t get a GP appointment, the roads are congested and there aren’t enough school places. All because, we’re told, of the “top down target” imposed on Swale District Council (wherein sits Henderson’s constituency) by the government. Swale Council had, it seems, proposed new housing provision amounting to 776 homes a year for the plan period only to be told by the Planning Inspectorate that this wasn’t enough and they’d need to find land for 1,048 new homes.
Having argued that the problem is “overdevelopment”, Henderson then - in gleeful irony - observes that developers haven’t managed to meet that 776 target any time in the last ten years. Any overdevelopment, it seems, is actually underdevelopment.
At this point another MP, Dan Poulter pops up with a helpful interjection, one that every local councillor will have heard:
Will he join me in urging the Minister to consider that there should be a right of appeal for local communities against inappropriate housing applications? There is a right for the developer; there is not currently a right for communities.We are now in the deepest heart of NIMBYland with MPs proposing ideas that, given even a cursory examination, are simply dreadful. A community right of appeal would simply result in every second planning permission getting clogged up in a long-winded and probably under-resourced appeal system. Nothing would ever get built (not that much is being built at the moment).
The debate continues, Henderson rightly points out the lack of planning resources in local councils and the assorted QUANGOs and agencies that have planning duties. But the main reason for this lack of resources is that trained and qualified planners spend too many of their days administering the development control system rather than any actual planning. Since England has a discretionary system for planning (every development requires a specific permission granted at the whim of the local planning authority) each and every development must be examined by a planner.
One of the ways in which we could make the system work better would be to move to a rules-based approach. Once the local planning authority (LPA) has agreed its local plan and made allocations according to perceived local needs, there should be no further need for planning officer involvement beyond the enforcement of the rules agreed in the plan. Yet MPs like Dan Poulter opposed this idea because it takes away from politicians the power to march local objectors up the hill in opposition to a development already set out in the LPA’s local plan. This, not good accountable local government, is what the NIMBY-inclined MPs mean by ‘community involvement in planning’.
The debate also witnessed the strange discussion of GPs and whether there are enough of them (there probably aren’t). Of course, the local health system is a consultee in the planning system and it is perfectly possible for the NHS to indicate that their provision cannot cope with increasing numbers as a result of new housing. And this would be a material planning consideration - grounds for the LPA refusing permission. In 24 years as a councillor I never saw this happen and I have not heard of it happening elsewhere. Moreover, the most likely response to the issue, just as with a lack of school places, has been to use planning gain (s106 now Community Infrastructure Levy) to provide the funding for new provision.
We also witnessed the usual arguments from MPs - Labour and Conservative - representing suburban areas, about brownfield sites being prioritised over greenfield (or Green Belt) sites. Followed by Kelly Tolhurst, MP for Rochester arguing that a major brownfield site in her constituency should not be redeveloped. This is the madness of our system. All of these reasons - excuses really - for not building houses are wheeled out by campaign groups and rolled along by MPs who seem to have only a passing knowledge of just what a colossal mess we are in with planning and housing. But the winning observation comes in an intervention from Taiwo Owatemi, MP for Coventry NW, a glorious exposition of NIMBY:
We would all like the dream of home ownership to be a reality. In my constituency, one of the biggest concerns of residents is that, because the local authority is trying to meet the housing target that has been put on them, they are losing their green spaces, such as Coundon Wedge. This is having a considerable impact on the wellbeing of so many people who use green spaces like that. It would be great to hear whether the Minister would meet with me to look at Coventry’s figures, because currently the Office for National Statistics projections are completely off the mark.We want houses, just not here. Until government closes down this argument, we will not build the homes we need, young people will sit frustrated in Mum’s basement or a crowded HMO, and our economy and environment will suffer.